New Orleans: music, museums and meals
Quick quiz: Think swinging jazz and soulful blues played in music clubs and by street musicians outside. Picture sidewalks crowded with people sipping beverages from plastic cups as they stroll along.
If you guess that describes New Orleans, you’re right — but there’s more.
Now see yourself visiting museums whose focus ranges from food and festivals, to history and mystery. Where? New Orleans again.
Many visitors to “the Big Easy,” as the city is nicknamed, are on a quest for fun and frivolity, and both are there in abundant supply. The hub of activity is the famous, some might say infamous, French Quarter. The iconic district of cobblestone streets lined by hotels and restaurants, shops and art galleries is centered on Royal Street.
The scene is very different just a block away on Bourbon Street, which lives up — or down — to its reputation as the playground of the South. T-shirt shops and other touristy traps vie for attention with posters touting “adult entertainment.”
Crowds of revelers often have no choice but to move along slowly, at times shoulder to shoulder, taking in the color and, for many, colorful beverage concoctions.
At the same time, those seeking something more educational, but no less enjoyable, can find a fascinating history to explore, a rich cultural mélange to experience, and attractions for people with a variety of interests.
Anyone seeking to delve below the surface of the city’s well-known appeals has an inviting choice of museums that await exploration — nearly four dozen span the alphabet from A (Art) to Z (Zoo). Together they offer insight into both aspects of New Orleans for which it is famous, as well as lesser known, but no less intriguing, tidbits.
And so during our recent visit, my wife Fyllis and I spent time walking along Bourbon Street, enjoying music both in bars and outside, and partaking of meals that will linger in our minds long after they left our taste buds. But we also satisfied our curiosity at several museums among the many in the city which, we concluded, too many people may overlook.
A good place to being an exploration is the Historic New Orleans Collection. From its rather modest start, this institution has expanded to occupy 10 historic buildings on two campuses in the French Quarter.
Exhibits present the intriguing history and colorful culture of New Orleans, Louisiana and the entire Gulf of Mexico region. They document major historical events that have shaped the area, and describe and demonstrate the everyday lives of people who passed through and settled there.
Guided tours provide in-depth information for those seeking more than a casual introduction, and changing exhibits offer insight into various aspects of the city’s and area’s story. I found two exhibits particularly intriguing in very different ways.
One, titled “Giants of Jazz: Art Posters and Lithographs,” includes 17 larger-than-life portraits by famous 20th-century poster artists. Among music legends depicted in the collection are Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles, along with information about their ties to New Orleans.
“Storyville: Madams and Music” relates another, very colorful chapter in the story of music in the city’s past. Created in 1897, the Storyville neighborhood operated as a city-sanctioned red light district until 1917. It attracted visitors with its saloons, music and dance, along with its many brothels. Pioneering musicians who later went on to become famous played there for tips.
The exhibit recalls this colorful time with photographs, oral histories and recordings. Holding center stage is a collection of pocket-sized directories known as “Blue Books,” which presented Storyville as a luxurious playground of lavish mansions, fine music and elegant women. In contrast, some items in the collection paint a very different picture of the reality.
Mardi Gras on the mild side
Of course, New Orleans is synonymous with Mardi Gras — the multi-day carnival, parade and excuse for over-eating and over-imbibing which has been celebrated there since the early 18th century. Two museums offer opportunities to experience the wonder of the festivities without the wildness.
Mardi Gras World is where floats for parades in New Orleans and other locations around the world have been made since 1947. In a studio so vast it could almost have its own zip code, visitors see artisans constructing lavishly decorated floats literally from the ground up.
The scene is set in a video, followed by a taste of King Cake, a treat closely associated with Mardi Gras. This confection, which is believed to have been brought to New Orleans from France in 1870, is served throughout the carnival season.
During the tour, Fyllis and I felt like Lilliputians in a world of giants. We were dwarfed by much-larger-than-life likenesses of cartoon figures, movie personalities and fantasy creatures. Oversized animals and flowers the size of trees loomed over us.
A different take on Mardi Gras comes forth at the Backstreet Cultural Museum. Don’t let the nondescript exterior of the house that contains this collection put you off. The two rooms and hallways inside are jammed with memorabilia that pay homage to New Orleans’ African-American carnival traditions and celebrations.
Artifacts, photographs and films tell part of the story. Hand-sewn and elaborately decorated costumes line the walls, their variety of bright colors presenting a challenge to the largest box of Crayolas.
Some of the outfits pay homage to Native Americans, who are remembered for the assistance they once provided to slaves who were running away from their owners. The displays also include hints of Africa, voodoo and other references to African-American history and customs.
A taste of the supernatural
Speaking of voodoo, and folks in New Orleans often do, there’s no better place to explore and experience that mysterious combination of religion and superstition. It was transported to New Orleans by slaves from West Africa in the early 18th century.
I got my voodoo fix at the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum, a miniscule but mesmerizing collection that I found to be both educational and entertaining.
Visitors are overwhelmed by a haphazard jumble of paintings, sculptures, dolls, masks and other artifacts. One painting depicts a voodoo exorcism that took place around 1850.
The Gris-Gris room displays objects used to invoke supernatural powers which, I learned, are rarely used for evil. Rather they seek to achieve fortune, luck and love.
A hollow “wishing stump” is festooned with notes that people left, along with a money offering for their ancestral spirits. Other tokens donated to please other-worldly beings include alcoholic beverages, cigarettes and chewing tobacco.
We rounded out our stay with three additional museums that deal with vital facets of what makes New Orleans such a magnet for tourism.
The aptly named Old U.S. Mint was built in 1835. During its decades of operation, it produced millions of gold and silver coins. Today, it displays treasure of a different kind, including instruments that were played by notable musicians, and other memorabilia that trace the history of jazz from its humble beginnings on the city’s streets. Another feature is a series of free jazz concerts.
Only in New Orleans would there be a national park devoted to jazz, and the Jazz National Historical Park fills the bill. The Visitor Center is the place to start, and it’s where jazz-related walking tours take off. The exhibits are not just about music, but also local history, cultures, wetlands, wildlife and food.
Food has top billing at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, along with local beverages of the city and the South. There’s a separate exhibit area for each southern state, telling the stories of the various cultures that contributed to the region’s culinary heritage.
At the associated Museum of the American Cocktail, demonstrations by chefs and occasional tastings round out the menu.
Whether enjoying distinctive dining, listening to world-class jazz, or checking out any number of other attractions, New Orleans offers a surprisingly complete menu of choices. Those who take time to explore its variety of museums leave with an understanding of an often-overlooked aspect of the city’s past, and present.
Planning your trip
Visitors to New Orleans who prefer to stay in the center of action might like the French Quarter Guest Houses, a group of four inns with a strong sense of the past.
For example, the Inn on Ursulines, originally built in the 18th century, is one of the oldest structures in the Quarter. The traditional Creole cottage once was owned by Marie Laveau, a well-known voodoo priestess. Rates begin at $100 for two people. For information about these Guest Houses, call (800) 535-7815 or visit www.frenchquarterguesthouses.com.
Other places to stay combine proximity to the center of town with a much quieter setting. At the Frenchmen Hotel, the guest rooms overlook a swimming pool set in an old traditional New Orleans brick courtyard, which adds a bit of authentic local ambience. Rates begin at $89. For more information, call (504) 945-5453 or see www.frenchmenhotel.com.
When it comes to dining, the challenge is choosing among so many famous, and fabulous, places to eat. One “must” for many visitors is the venerable Antoine’s, which was established in 1840 and now is operated by the fifth generation of the founder’s family.
Menu prices keep pace with the elegant setting and service. Popular items include chicken breast stuffed with fresh mushrooms served over onion rice ($27) and fresh Gulf fish prepared several ways ($27-$40). For more information, call (504) 581-4422 or visit www.antoines.com.
What hungry history buff wouldn’t be attracted by a sign reading “The Original Pierre Maspero’s, Est. 1788”? The building in which the restaurant is located served as a slave exchange and as the meeting place where Andrew Jackson planned the Battle of New Orleans, during which the American troops he led defeated the British.
Today, people gather there to sample local fare like fried alligator ($12.50) and seafood pot pie ($24.50). For more information, call (504) 524-8990 or go to www.originalpierremasperos.com.
Direct roundtrip flights from Reagan National and Dulles Airports in late January start at $211 on United and American Airlines.
For more information about New Orleans, visit www.neworleansonline.com or call (800) 672-6124.